Bottled Water: More Than You Bargained For?
By Samantha Ezgar, Staff Contributor
Many people choose to drink bottled water even if they have access to safe tap water, and many people must drink bottled water because there is not any other access to safe water. But how safe is bottled “purified” water?
Orb Media, a nonprofit journalism organization, tested over two hundred and fifty plastic bottles of water, from 11 different reputable brands, from 19 locations in nine countries. The research investigated whether the bottled water contained microscopic plastic particles (“microplastics”). Microplastics are broadly defined as plastic particles less than five millimeters in size in any one direction. State University of New York conducted the research for Orb Media, and revealed “widespread contamination with plastic debris including polypropylene, nylon, and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).” The bottles of water revealed an average of 10.4 microplastics per liter. The plastic particles were about 0.10 millimeter, or about the width of a strand of human hair. Ultimately, the study produced results showing ninety-three percent of the bottles tested contained plastic particles at least 0.10 millimeters throughout the water.
In addition to the verified microplastic particles, there were particles smaller than 0.10 millimeters present in the water, which had an overall average of 314.6 per liter. Although not confirmed with certainty, the study infers that these particles were plastic debris.
Neither the US nor the European Union have specific regulations for microplastics in drinking water. “European Commission food safety spokeswoman, Anca Paduraru, said that while microplastics are not explicitly regulated in bottled water, ‘legislation makes clear there must be no contaminants.’” Additionally, the American Beverage Association provided a statement saying, “We stand by the safety of our bottled water products.” In the United States, consumer safety is protected through federal government agencies by regulation and inspection of products. More investigation into the effects of microplastics is needed for the legislature to consider passing plastic particle regulation.
In 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) commissioned a study of microplastics and gathered together experts to analyze the current knowledge of microplastics and future research goals in the field. There is currently a dearth of research on human consumption of microplastics, and although bottled water is treated, “uncertainties remain as to whether drinking water delivery systems contribute microplastics to finished water.” The EPA Microplastics Expert Workshop Report concluded “the potential risks associated with microplastics exposure are unknown for both humans and wildlife, largely critical information needed to conduct risk assessments—exposure and effects data—are lacking.”
Research is beginning on potential changes microplastics may create in the food chain. Initial studies suggest consumption of microplastic particles by consuming seafood containing microplastics, “has been shown to cause physical damage leading to cellular necrosis, inflammation and laceration of tissues in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.” Aside from the physical risks, there are also potential toxicity risks associated with consuming microplastics. Overall, the hazards of human consumption of microplastics remain largely unknown. However, microplastic has shown to absorb “persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic substances, which are present in trace quantities in almost all water bodies.” It is conceivable the microplastics could amass enough toxic substances to cause negative effects. Future research is likely to study both the physical and chemical effects of microplastics.
The Orb Media study concluded that polypropylene, the plastic used to manufacture bottle caps, was the most common microplastic discovered in the bottled water at fifty-four percent. The scientists tested water which came from the same source and was bottled in either plastic or glass. Astoundingly, the water in the glass bottle contained 204 microplastics per liter, compared to 1410 microplastics per liter in the plastic bottle of water. These studies may support the inference that microplastic particles leach into the water through the plastic cap after production.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has responded to the Orb Media study. Bruce Gordon, coordinator of the WHO’s global work on water and sanitation, provided a statement. “When we think about the composition of the plastic, whether there might be toxins in it, to what extent they might carry harmful constituents, what actually the particles might do in the body—there’s just not the research there to tell us.” The EPA Microplastics Expert Workshop Report emphasized what other studies and people in the field are saying, “the development of reliable, reproducible and high-quality methods for microplastics quantification and characterization is fundamental and of paramount importance for understanding microplastics risks.”
Research on the physical and toxicity risks of consuming microplastics is needed to understand whether governmental regulation of microplastics particles is necessary. If you needed a reason to switch to a reusable water bottle, perhaps learning about the potential risks of microplastics in bottled water will do the trick.
 Sherri A. Mason Et. Al., Synthetic Polymer Contamination in Global Drinking Water, 1, 1 (2017).
 Margaret Murphy, Microplastics Expert Workshop Report, 1, 2 (2017) (citing Arthur et al. 2009)).
 Dan Morrison & Christopher Tyree, Plus Plastic: Microplastics Found in Global Bottled Water, Orb Media, 2017.
 Mason Et. Al., supra note 1.
 Morrison & Tyree, supra note 3.
 Murphy, supra note 2.
 Id. at 19, (citing Abbott Et. Al., Evaluating Nonparticle Breakthrough During Water Treatment (2013).
 Id. at 21.
 New Link in the Food Chain? Marine Plastic Pollution and Seafood Safety, Volume 123 Number 2 Environmental Health Perspectives, A35, A35, (2015).
 Mason Et. Al., supra note 1.
 Id. at 9.
 David Shukman, Plastic: WHO Launches Health Review, BBC News, Mar. 15, 2018.
 Murphy, supra note 2 at 3.